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Panel Oks Digital Standard

It was eight years in the making, but an FCC advisory panel last week asked the agency to adopt a new broadcast transmission system expected to result in a radical overhaul of how over-the-air TV programs are delivered in the U.S.

The proposal, adopted by the FCC Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service, would result in a transition from analog to digital delivery of TV signals, thus ushering in the potential for viewers to receive TV pictures with unparalleled clarity. For TV stations, there’s an added bonus to going digital: The potential to “multiplex” one channel into four or more channels.

“This is a landmark day for many communications industries, and especially for American TV viewers,” said Dick Wiley, the former FCC chairman who headed a 25-member FCC advisory panel that included broadcast, cable, computer, telephone, consumer electronics and entertainment industry representatives.

The digital TV standard recommended by the advisory panel has come to be known as the “Grand Alliance” system. The Grand Alliance was formed in 1993 after the FCC advisory panel recommended a pooling of resources among companies bidding for exclusive U.S. rights to the new HDTV standard.

Grand Alliance members include Sony, AT& T, General Instrument Corp., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Philips Consumer Electronics, the David Sarnoff Research Center, Thomson Consumer Electronics and Zenith Electronics Corp. Many of these entities are TV set manufacturers, an industry segment that stands to benefit tremendously from any sort of change in broadcast standard.

“No system in the world’s history of television has gone through such scrutiny,” CBS rep Joseph Flaherty said. “This system is not only world-class, but the world leader by a long way.”

Reports circulating before the Nov. 28 vote suggested cable and computer industry representatives were prepared to abstain or vote against the Grand Alliance proposal. However, the final vote was unanimous, even though minor complaints were raised by reps from Time Warner Cable, Digital Equipment Corp., and Microsoft Corp.

A Digital Equipment Corp. spokeswoman said the computer industry’s main gripe involves the advisory committee’s refusal to embrace a progressive scan format. Microsoft rep Craig Mundie seemed to question whether the recommendation will speed the convergence of computers and TV.

James McKinney, who heads the Advanced Television Systems Committee, dismissed suggestions that some industries were not solicited for their input. “We did attempt to get movie studios and computer companies involved,” McKinney said.

But the American Society of Cinematographers, which was not present at the Nov. 28 session, has criticized the Grand Alliance proposal and maintained that its representatives – as well as others from the Hollywood creative community

– have been shut out of the standards planning process.

If the FCC has not adopted the progressive scanning recommendation, Steven Poster of ASC said, “This would be an affront to the computer industry, an affront to Hollywood, and an affront to the public. If it’s not adopted, it will be a travesty. It’ll cost broadcasters and the public billions of dollars, then it’ll have to be changed again in a few years.”

The advisory committee’s recommendation now goes to the FCC, where chairman Reed Hundt already has sent notice he considers broadcast transition to digital TV delivery a top priority.

Katharine Stalter constributed to this report.

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